The Institute of Economic Affairs has published an index ranking European countries on a “Nanny State Index”. The index is based on their ratings on four issues: the freedom to smoke, to drink alcohol, to eat junk food and to use e-cigarettes. Finland is the “least free”; the UK comes second. The Czech Republic is “most free”.
Many people on the neo-liberal right take a peculiarly restricted view of freedom. Freedom is usually defined in terms of non-interference. Hayek argues, in The Constitution of Liberty, that someone does not cease to be free if they are trapped on a mountain (it’s an odd example, but he was Austrian). On the other hand, their freedom might be infringed if someone sent mountain rescue to help them out without getting their permission first.
The main justification neo-liberals accept for intervention is to protect the freedom of others. It doesn’t seem to matter that smoking threatens non-smokers, that alcohol fuels violence and accidents or that junk food is aimed at children. Those arguments might be persuasive in themselves – we hear them a lot – but none of them gets to the heart of the reason why we need public health measures. Smoking, alcohol and sugar have together been responsible for much of the premature death and disability in the UK – far more dangerous than terrorism, roads, HIV, pollution or anything else we might name. The freedom that the IEA is defending is the freedom to die early, to be subject to crippling disease, and to have firms pass off poisonous junk on the public because the only freedom that matters is the freedom of the producer. Public health is not the threat to freedom. The people who peddle this stuff are.